I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)

There’s probably something odd in blogging about the superiority of the physical page as compared to the digital screen. I don’t particularly love eBooks; as I have enumerated before, I don’t own a tablet or eReader of any sort so my experience is limited to reading on my smartphone. And that’s not terribly enjoyable.

Overall, I’d estimate that out of the 125 books I read last year, about 100 of them were physical, 20 were audio, and the remaining five were electronic text.

Fortunately for me, science suggests that from a neurological perspective, this is the preferred way to read:

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007 . . . But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books . . . A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

My own experiences support this. I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I read it entirely on my smartphone. I noticed one particular advantage: my book was always in my pocket which otherwise wouldn’t be possible given that Cryptonomicon, like almost everything Stephenson writes, is around 1,000 pages. I was able to read pretty much everywhere I went which really helped rack up some extra reading time throughout the day.

But I can tell that I didn’t absorb it as fully as if I’d been reading a physical version. It’s easier to skim on a screen. You scroll through the text and “psuedo-read” what’s there, seeing without comprehending.

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

I noticed the “F pattern” creep into my reading experience. It certainly didn’t help my comprehension, even if it did improve the speed at which I plowed through the book (but since I’m reading for my own pleasure, what’s the point of going so quickly that you don’t realize what you’re doing?)

I also noticed that the “F pattern” effect began to recede as soon as I returned to a physical book. My focus was much sharper.

I have another mammoth Stephenson tome sitting in my “to-read” pile (Anathem, if you’re curious) and it will be interesting to see how the experience compares; two very long works by the same author on the different formats.

One thought on “I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)”

  1. I wonder if there’s a generational effect that might come into play. IE, I wonder if a generation raised on e-readers might have a different aptitude for reading on e-readers or a lack of aptitude for reading paper. Do people focus more on paper because of something intrinsic to the physical medium, or have people simply been trained that material on a printed page is to be consumed in whole while material on a screen is to be skimmed? I could foresee a generation that learned to read on a screen consuming material on a printed page in an almost identical fashion.

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